I’ve spent a great deal of time with Joan Didion lately. As I was finishing her book, “Blue Nights,” my pal, Janice, told me about the new documentary about Didion on Netflix, The Center Will Not Hold,” so I watched that, too.
Readers who have come late to Joan Didion’s work are most apt to know her memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” the beautiful and award-winning account of the year her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a heart attack, at the dinner table, an hour or so after returning from a New York hospital where their only child, Quintana Roo, lay in a New York ICU, on the verge of death.
Grim stuff, that, but Didion tells it, unflinchingly, and in her distinctive voice that readers have admired and praised since the 1960’s when she wrote for Vogue, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, Life. Her writing is sophisticated but approachable, and when I sit in her presence, I often let the book drop in my lap for a moment while I admire that sentence, this paragraph.
I don’t know how I came to pick up my first Joan Didion book—I suppose I was browsing the non-fiction section in some bookstore or another, and I came across her book of essays on the Sixties, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
The title, alone, was enough to recommend it. It is a compilation of articles she wrote to explain, or attempt to explain, the Sixties—the Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbury, the “flotsam of jetsam” of humanity that flees to the golden coast, searching for something, that elusive better thing, only to find a vast ocean, and no where else to run. In her opening essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” she captures the promise and desperation of the mythical place that was California in the mid-1960’s. The center of the counter-culture, John Wayne, quickie divorces and beauty school, sunsets over trailer parks on the flat, scrub brush edge of town.
“Blue Nights” is the memoir she wrote after the death of her daughter, Quintana. She struggled with serious illness before her father died and for two years after. It has been called an uneven book, but an important book, even so.
Didion wrote “The Year of Magical Thinking” in three months, wanting to get her thoughts down while they were still fresh, raw, and she tells us in interviews that for her, it is through writing that she processes her life and comes to terms, in a way, with Dunne’s death. It is a deeply honest book and moving, perhaps more so because there is not a hint of self-pity in it. We see her, sometimes, blinking in the searing light of her new grief, disoriented perhaps, but never pitiful, as she searches for the word, the thought, the memory to help explain things.
“Blue Nights” is a different kind of book. One reviewer said it was not a memoir on grief, like C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed,” or indeed her own “The Year of Magical Thinking.” He suggests it is a memoir of regret, as Didion grapples with the loss of this child, the questioning of her effectiveness as a mother, and her own aging.
They adopt Quintana in a flurry, and Didion tells us at the celebratory drinks party the next day it is her sister-in-law who suggests they shop for a bassinet, that it had not yet occurred to Didion they needed one.
That this child is wanted and adored we do not doubt. But Didion lets us in on her horrible secret-perhaps all mothers share it—her fear that she might not be up to the challenge.
It is a moving and sometimes painful tale of families, hope, love, desperation and grief.
The actor, Griffin Dunne, her nephew, produced the Netflix documentary. It adds context and texture to her writing and her life. She reads from her work in voice-overs, this self-assured voice we hear in contrast to the frail woman we see on screen.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is the book I have bought and given away at least a dozen times to friends and fellow writers. I think Joan Didion is the finest essayist of our time, or certainly one of them. Spend an evening or a week in the pages of one of her books, a perfect place to hide for a few hours in late autumn when it feels as if our own centers “will not hold.